Mt. Ararat students help Topsham track animals

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TOPSHAM — For the second consecutive year, Mt. Ararat High School students have helped the town collect data in potential wildlife corridor areas by conducting animal tracking surveys.

Rod Melanson, Topsham’s natural resource/assistant planner, worked with biology teacher Glenn Evans and his students this winter to gather the data through field studies.

“We just go over projects that we’re doing in the planning realm, and (Evans) is really focused on natural resource stuff with the kids; getting them out and doing things,” Melanson said.

Aerial analysis maps taken over Topsham have identified undeveloped blocks of habitat in town, Melanson said. Throughout February and March the survey groups went to potential wildlife corridors identified on those maps to determine whether animals were in fact moving there.

“This is just a random look at what’s out there on any given day,” Melanson said, noting that the work has aided Topsham in its natural areas planning efforts.

“We have an opportunity to go field check something with kids, and they get a benefit from it, so in my mind it’s a good win-win,” he said. “(The survey) just tells us how good our data is.”

Melanson said the Cathance River Education Alliance provided the training space for the students, as well as the gear necessary to perform the surveys. Topsham-based Stantec provided technical guidance and training for the students.

“We go over the basics of animal tracking,” Melanson said. “… Winter is great … Fresh snow happens, and you can see everything.”

Students learn track shapes, gait patterns and other signs of activity. “It’s really like a detective’s crime scene,” Melanson said. “They can’t mess with evidence.”

The students documented the signs with digital photography and made measurements in order to obtain baseline data. Most commonly they saw signs of domestic dogs and red squirrels, but they also came across evidence of fishers, which reflects good ecosystem health, Melanson said: “They need large undeveloped areas to live, versus a skunk, which could live in your backyard or under your house.”

The evidence gathered over the past two winters will go into a report, Melanson said, “but if the kids want to keep doing it just because it’s a good lesson for them, I’ll leave that up to Glenn.”

Evans said his students’ involvement next year will depend on their interest and the town’s need.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or

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Mt. Ararat High School biology teacher Glenn Evans, left, looks on as senior Tim Bickford uses a guide to identify animal tracks.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.